Words from the People
- Paul Robert Magocsi (Editor)
Aboriginal Peoples of Canada. A Short Introduction.. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Charles L. Cutler (Author)
O Brave New Words! Native American Loanwords in Current English. University of Oklahoma Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Gundula Wilke
Aboriginal Peoples of Canada is composed of the largest entry, “aboriginals,” from the Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples (1999), republished in this format for better accessibility. A detailed introduction by J. R. Miller provides an overview of Canada’s aboriginal peoples and their relations with past and present non-aboriginal society. The chapters are arranged by linguistic groupings: Algonquians (subdivided into Eastern Woodlands, Plains, Subarctic), Inuit, Iroquoians, Ktunaxa (Kutenai), Métis, Na-Dene, Salish, Siouans, Tsimshians, Wakashans. The history of individual groups is traced to their present location in Canada, emphasising both their unity and internal linguistic and cultural diversity. A number of structural categories are detailed in this exploration: “identification and history,” “economic life,” “family, kinship, and social organization,” “culture and religion,” “education, language, and communication,” “politics,” and “inter-group relations and group maintenance”; the encyclopedia offers manifold invitations and reminders for the Canadian reader to continue an exploratory reading process.
Commercial partnership in fishing and fur trade, Christian evangelization, and military alliance in diplomacy and warfare made it necessary to first establish harmonious relations. Later the process of settlement and resource exploitation resulted in dispossession and displacement, in economic marginalization, and attempted assimilation. Natives communities, with their dependence upon migratory food sources and thus extensive territoriality, were regarded as obstacles to European economic interests. “[T]he vast majority of the Canadian Inuit still live and work in their original territory;” the Métis, on the other hand, suffer from identification problems as a distinctive group due to their racial mixing and their status as a landless minority. Social, economic, and political problems of aboriginals are countered by the recent development of “a spiritual, political, and cultural revival” as a separate identity within Canadian society signified, for example, by treaty negotiations and recent agreements, a rising aboriginal enrollment in post-secondary education, or the major presence of Native artists and performers. Many people today express identification with their native heritage, and the pan-Indian adoption of new customs (e.g. the powwow movement, potlatch, sun dance, and sweat lodge) have become a cross-cultural experience. Within the framework of this volume, the combination of articles conveys a very detailed image of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada and may serve as a significant resource tool. The addition of a few maps, and perhaps an index, would make it even more accessible.
O Brave New Words! examines linguistic and socio-cultural contact since Columbus. New circumstances, new locations, and objects needed new words and phrases, such as natural features specific to America, distinctive plants and animals, foods, and technologies; further loanwords reflect cultural entities (e.g. powwow, sagamore, or totem in the seventeenth century). The adoption of loanwords is no one-sided process, yet Cutler’s findings are based on a collection of American Indian words or terms found in the English language in current use. His data input refers to entries in the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1971) and its supplements until 1986, and reflects shifting cultural relations. Some expressions were adopted indirectly via Spanish, Portuguese, French, or Russian and Scandinavian sources. O Brave New Words! is based on seven broad American language groups (Eskimo-Aleut, Na-Dene, Macro-Algonquian, Macro-Siouan, Hokan, Penutian, Aztec-Tanoan), and it refers to all of North America north of Mexico, and is arranged historically, interspersed with background knowledge. The rate of loanword borrowing, visualized in a graph, serves as historical indicator for Native / non-native relations. Geographical and cultural distances explain the low number of loans from some languages.
Linguistically, most loans are nouns, some transformed into verbs; new compound-word constructions are formed; linguistic adaptations to the English phonetic system are performed by truncation and anglicization. Indianisms that translate expressions from Indian languages such as iron horse, whispering spirit, great white father often indicate cultural misunderstandings of basic concepts. These found extensive use in literature, some of them invented for their mythic quality. No further need for new nomenclature and a change from rural to urban society led to an almost complete end of borrowing in the late twentieth century. Yet, recent renaming processes (e.g. Frobisher Bay) and “[l]iterature by Native American authors may be the most fertile source for new Indian loans”; another possible new source may be films.
Two glossaries, “North American Indian languages north of Mexico” and “Eskimo and Aleut languages”, incorporate the date of first recorded use, etymologies, pronunciations, and definitions for the purpose of identification; they serve as valuable supplements and references for the main text. The appendix “Latin American Indian Languages” reveals the far-reaching influence of Ancient American civilisations. Both appendix and glossaries comprise one third of the whole book which is completed by notes and a bibliography. All material is made accessible to the interested reader as well as the scholar in a narrative style: History becomes story, linguistic processes become communication. Readers expecting page after page of linguistic data will be surprised at the range of topics the author explores.
While Cutler sees the variety of North American Indian languages as an obstacle to communication and cooperation among Native peoples, various authors in Aboriginal Peoples of Canada emphasize the use of non-verbal communication such as sign language and graphic symbols (petroglyphs, pictographs; animal hides; birchbark scrolls), highlight the political and socio-economic role of interpreters, and delineate early traditions of native language literacy, of syllabaries and alphabets. Language serves as a carrier of cultural information, thus, as Cutler states, “[d]istinctive customs and traditions often disappear with the languages in which they were conveyed.” Education and language policies led to a loss of traditional languages and cultures in North America. Many languages are either endangered because they are only spoken by elders, or they have been totally replaced by English; ironically, they partly survive in English as loanwords and loan terms, and this construction of a cultural memory in language is pivotal in leaving a lasting impact. Both books offer evocative and useful entry points for comparison, reflection, and further reading on the aboriginal peoples of Canada and indicate the potential for Native empowerment.
- Queer As Folk Etymology by Ramona Montagnes
Books reviewed: Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs by Katherine Barber
- Haunted Histories, Storied Selves by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: Girl Unwrapped by Gabriella Goliger and The Obituary by Gail Scott
- Some Americas by Albert Braz
Books reviewed: Do the Americas Have a Common Literary History? by Barbara Buchenau and Annette Paatz
- Updating the Trickster by June Scudeler
Books reviewed: Troubling Tricksters: Revisioning Critical Conversations by Linda M. Morra and Deanna Reder
- Varied Stories by Rita Wong
Books reviewed: A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity, With Voices by Ronald Takaki and Choose Me by Evelyn Lau
MLA: Wilke, Gundula. Words from the People. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #186 (Autumn 2005), Women & the Politics of Memory. (pg. 156 - 158)
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